‘It’s like the game ain’t the same,’ reflects Nas prophetically on ‘NY State of Mind’, observing the tragedy of how urban poverty survival tactics recruit an increasingly younger workforce. Illmatic is an album that continues to be hailed by fans and critics as one of the greatest hip hop album of the ’90s. Its portrayal of the Queensbridge projects and wider New York, where drugs and violence insinuate themselves through the neglected strata of the Black inner city, is worthy of the otherwise overused title of ‘social commentary’. With the help of nostalgic jazz-inflected rhythms and basslines, courtesy of producers like DJ Premier and Q-Tip, Nas taps into the hearts, minds and motivations of people who have been effectively abandoned by wider society to fend for themselves.
Many lament the passing of hip hop’s so-called golden age, the era in the 80s and 90s when music voiced extant inequalities and envisioned a radical politics through struggle. Trap music, they say, lacks ‘soul’ – figuratively and indeed literally, for the genre abandons sampling old records in favour of software synths. The music no longer looks on an uncaring world, no longer channels the blues, no longer dreams of self-determination; if such things exist in the songs, they’re hollow or misused.
This rendition of the genre’s trajectory is a gross oversimplification of the events that have shaped both styles, and it ignores, fundamentally, the shift to millennial neoliberalism. When, in the 90s, inequality still might have been recognised as the result of external forces (depleted welfare, privatised social security and ongoing cuts to education), we are now in an era where the rationale has been internalised. Structural relations are naturalised and the neoliberal logic of the ‘individual’s freedom to consume’ is common parlance. We are as responsible for our success as we are blamed for our poverty. Even post-2008, the idea that inequality might be inherent to capitalism is laughed down. If the rappers of the golden age narrated the implementation of neoliberal policy, trap music is the elegy of its consequence.
Saying this, the driving force of hip hop’s lyrical content has always and continues to be a dialectic of subjects and objects, and of people and things. The will to rise above poverty and its incumbent objectification, or to be a ‘subject’, are all features of both periods. The difference is whereas the golden age told stories located somewhere between an immanent struggle and a (better) possible future, trap music focuses on the excesses of a perpetual present tense. Compare, for instance, Nas’s lyric in ‘Life’s a Bitch’ – ‘and my mentality is money-orientated / I’m destined to live the dream for all my peeps who never made it’ – with Young Thug’s hook on Rich Gang’s 2014 hit ‘Lifestyle’: ‘I’ve done did a lot of shit just to live this here lifestyle.’ When Biggie wrote ‘I want it all from the Rolexes to the Lexus / Getting paid is all I expected,’ he predicted the day when Thug could comfortably announce his ‘Million 5 on the Visa card / Hundred bands still look like the fuckin’ Titans’ – that is, his pockets bulging like the pads of an American footballer.
Of course there is an obvious and important conflict here: money is the most sought-after object. On the one hand this is entirely reasonable as, especially to those with nothing, money is obviously necessary to provide for your family (Thug reminds us he still ‘got sisters and brothers to feed’). The problem arises when an initially valid means becomes an end in itself. ‘Things’ begin to define rather than enable their owner, and the very fact of owning seems to constitute, falsely, one’s value as a person.
On the track ‘Rich $ex’, Future demonstrates this point best when he solicits an unnamed woman to partake in the joys intimate relations with accessories:
Baby girl, let’s have some rich sex
I’ma keep my AP on while I do it
We can keep an AP on when we do it
You can keep your Rollie on when I get to it
You can keep your Rollie on when I get to it
When you look down, see my chains on
When you look down, see my chains on
‘Rich $ex’ is the picture of alienation of subjects by things. Unsatisfied by the traditional claim to prowess that sex alone once offered, Future one-ups the trope by carving his image in gold. The result, however, is an egregious form of self-objectification as he is reduced to a display case of shiny things. The double-entendres, intentional or otherwise, are also revealing: the ‘AP’ is both an expensive watch and an AP-9 semi-automatic. The ‘chains’ at once signal the gold around his neck as they do the figurative chains of his own enslavement by these objects, and the literal chains of the slave songs of the blues, to which his music and name are indebted. The otherwise seemingly anodyne lyrics manage to gesture not only to a notion of self-objectification, but also to the violence latent in commodities, or to the ‘Blood on the Money’ – another track on the album, DS2, which ‘Rich $ex’ features on.
In both songs, however, the point is more how structural violence is naturalised or perceived to be unavoidable. The chorus of ‘Blood on the Money’ announces with impersonality and resolve Future’s intent to persist in his habits at any cost:
They got blood on the money and I still count it
I can’t help the way I’m raised up
That Easter Pink, I tried to give it up, I can’t give it up
Infatuated and literally intoxicated, the lyrics belie a diehard commitment to neoliberal individualism, but also a sense of his enslavement by it. He shrugs off the issue in an interview by explaining it’s just ‘politics’ and he’ll ‘get that money by any means’. ‘Respect towards everyone individually,’ [my italics] he defends, but ‘the ways of the world is not gonna change the way I live my life.’ Nonetheless, the sense is more of an addiction than a choice: he ‘can’t give it up’. The song becomes its own critic as it’s only by repeating the mantra and with sufficient Easter Pink (pink codeine mixed with cough syrup) that Future is numbed enough to partake.
In this way, trap music tarries with the problem of intention. However much one argues that the music critiques neoliberalism, it’s just as easy to claim any condemnation is lost in its seeming endorsement by the narrators. Against this, we should distinguish between the music’s lyrics and sound. Trap music is split between a verbal propagation of neoliberal ideology and an aural tapestry of its darker contradictions.
The shapes and sounds of each artist’s words comment on the content. Young Thug elects for a spasmodic relay of non-sequiturs, improvising from doodles and symbols in spontaneous free association. At times slurred; at others, entirely nonsensical, Thug’s voice is its own effects processor. Future’s delivery, on the other hand, is more traditional; it’s only after recording that Metro Boomin or another of his producers will digitally process his voice to give it its signature flatness. Autotuned and monotonous, Future sounds as vapid as he does painful and pained, and thereby somehow seems to signal to our imbrication within digitalised systems of exchange. His voice is subject to the machines that record his presence among them, whether that’s into the binary of Pro Tools or the trailing 0s of a bank statement. The traces of the person are there, but they are distanced by technology. Whereas with Thug, the metaphors jump out of the syllable soup like a broken vending machine spewing out objects at random. The mundane and surreal are mixed as he vomits out his environment as though he, like the vending machine, is just a vessel recording the sonic imprint of people’s transactions, or indeed, the transaction of people.
Trap instrumentals are notable for their mechanical and digital coldness. A piece of equipment that deliberately doesn’t sound like its acoustic counterpart, the Roland 808 drum machine provides the percussion and bass to most beats. Virtual Studio Technology instruments (or VSTs) are the main source of melodic and harmonic material, and have a sterility and spaciousness of timbre distinct from the warmth of an analog vintage synthesiser or a vinyl piano sample. The character of the sound in ‘Lifestyle’ is notable for how Yamaha-keyboard-demo it is. In ‘Rich $ex’ and ‘Blood on the Money’ the chords feel plastic, packaged and sentimental, except for that fact they carry that odd form of estranged pathos that a Facebook like has on a break-up post. Emotions are mediated through the shredder of plugin presets and what remind me of cheap kids’ keyboards, but somehow this all feels closer to our reality of emoji expressions of companionship and Gotye YouTube covers.
In effect, the music undoes much of the ideological graft of the lyrics. Beneath every egotism and posture, there’s a darkness in the beats and a vulnerability in the tone of the voices. It’s as if all the contradictions otherwise latent and denied in the lyrics are sculpted out of the sound. Indeed, as Future reveals in interview, it’s only after the recording takes place and he isn’t present that the hooks and overall narrative of the track take shape, as pieces are chopped and spliced together behind the desk. Where Nas told the unheard stories of a deprived and depraved world, Future and Thug are that world itself. In trap music, the role of producer and function of the beat are forefronted: the lyricist is less the telling subject than the object being told of. The undoubtedly sincere grappling for self-determination is there, but it’s spoken in the bastard tongue of the structures that hindered it in the first place. It’s only in the timbre and space between the words that you hear the precariousness of the pose.
As a product of individualism, consumerism and violence, trap inevitably reproduces these objects – somewhat reflected, somewhat refracted, somewhat autonomous, somewhat propaganda. There is, however, in a music otherwise steeped in the logic that produces its protagonists, a conflict of form and content. Within this rupture, we encounter the contradiction: people become self-exploiting objects and forge their own chains. The songs come to embody the unfortunate truth that a reified form of freedom is not the same as equality, nor does it necessarily even produce individual happiness. And no matter how much Easter Pink you drink to try to forget this fact, it remains.